Lens On: Ryker Allen

Meet the queer photographer documenting unrequited love through an ethereal lens.

Named amongst the most promising queer creatives for 2018, New York-based non-binary photographer Ryker Allen is fast becoming known for their ethereal portraiture work. Photo Editor of treasured queer title Hello Mr., elsewhere Allen has already clocked up some impressive photography gigs, shooting for the likes of Interview, W, OUT and Nylon; not bad for someone who’s yet to turn 21.

Their latest venture is a crowdfunding project and their very first photo-book, Cherry Blossom. Exploring unrequited love, the subject matter falls to a former lover for whom Allen still holds a romantic interest. Something we’ve all fallen victim to at least once, right? Inside, the publication treats fans to an interview between Allen and the esteemed photographer, Jack Pierson.

As they near their fundraising goal, we sit down with Ryker to explore a unique young life behind the lens.

When did you first become interested in photography?

I first picked up a camera around the age of 10. I was a child actor and needed a side hobby in-between call times. I would photograph simple and mundane things like fruit and flowers. I got into portraiture around 14 or 15, the same time I was developing an early understanding of my identity and realised I could use the camera as a tool to discuss these ideas [that were] new to me.
What or who influences you?

From within, I’m influenced by my need to document my thoughts and those I care about. Externally, I love to reference visuals from historically queer photographs and printed matter like Physique Pictorial, lots of homoerotic pulp, painting, film.
And what are some of your favourite subjects in terms of shooting?

My peers, those that I connect with. I find portrait making to be a very intimate experience, oftentimes subjects choose to open up and share their stories with me during a studio visit. These are, for sure, conversations that have shaped my understanding of the queer community and young people as a respected force. I equally love involving these moments when it comes to editorial work – just because a project is commissioned doesn’t mean I should allow it to lack personal context.
Tell us about your most memorable photographic experience.

Working in the colour darkroom for the first time was life changing. It opened my eyes to the bias of the camera and the importance of the artist’s hand in the realm of photographic production and colour.
You’re currently in the process of crowdfunding Cherry Blossom. What made you decide to release a book?
I’ve always struggled with understanding my emotions and one of the ways I found as an outlet was through the tangible image. Photography works best when it is physically viewed or held. While shooting Cherry Blossom, I felt as if I was quite literally turning an internalised page with every shutter release.
Love is a feeling a lot of people have felt, but almost all fail to find a way to properly describe [it]. Because of this, as a society,  we obsess over its definition. This book is my attempt to define the love I experienced in those moments. It was also important to me that the viewer’s experience of the book as an object is relatable. We kept references to the concept of a keepsake in mind when it came to the design, including ephemera like postcards and ticket stubs.

The subject of the book, in your own words, is a former lover. How did you handle shooting him in spite of the unrequited feelings?

In all honesty, I was under the impression that the trip itself was going to be a rekindling of our relationship. I thought I was photographing a new beginning to the love story I was hoping for. We had a lot of communication over the course of the trip, answering questions of one another that we had never thought to ask post-break-up. Our maintenance of a positive connection was crucial to my personal side of things and gaining closure. He is very supportive of my work, furthermore I try to be quite transparent with him – opening up more opportunities for trust.

Why Cherry Blossom?
In terms of this series, Cherry Blossom originally refers to a sort of nostalgic Montreal candy by the same name. The subject of the photographs and I spotted them in a corner store, their packaging had a very homoerotic design, with beautiful halftone colours. After the trip concluded, and towards the early production of the book, I began researching other symbolism surrounding cherry blossoms, but this time the flower. Learning that in Japanese culture, there is a practice called “hanami” or flower viewing. The act of looking but not touching, observing from a distance as to not affect nature. I realised the connection of “hanami” to my gaze as both a photographer and someone who had a romantic interest in the subject.
Why should people support the book?
Despite the depiction of only two people in this series, queer art and publication is a community effort. As queer people, we must create our spaces and take up physical matter in the world; making ourselves known and holding nothing back while supporting other visual voices in our community.
The tangible photograph is an impossible experience to replicate through a digital screen, just as the realities surrounding queer love should be reminded through “show” rather than “tell”. Due to the digital changes occurring in the photo world, crafting a high quality publication is increasingly difficult. Funding such a project as a young person is equally a challenge. Making this book for profit, or social-recognition, is far less important to me than knowing that if this book ends up in the hands of another queer peer, they might find a connection. Something I grew up deeply longing for in the media I experienced.

The photographer Jack Pierson has interviewed you for the book. How did that came about?
Jack is without a doubt, one of the reasons I am able to make the type of photographs that I do today. We have been in casual conversation before but I had never gotten to open up deeper to him, especially as a mentor figure, until now. Jack’s work acts as a constant source of inspiration, his photography brings intimate access to other queers that came before me, especially those that I will never meet due to the AIDS crisis. In the interview, Jack helps me ultimately break down my thoughts and feelings. Helping me sort the weight between love and lust, and understanding their unique differences. We discuss the bias of the camera and the honesty of the image when it comes to creating portraits of those we care about.

Do you see yourself doing another book in the future?
I love publication too much to put doubt into the world about producing another book. It will be a while most likely, as I am focusing on other publication projects after Cherry Blossom, including the launch of my first curatorial project, Junior Notebook coming out mid-2018.
Who or what would you most love to photograph?

I have been heavily considering returning to the small towns in Texas surrounding where I grew up to bring a voice to young queer people living in the rural South. I’m also very interested in collaborating in fashion right now, there are so many new small designers questioning the binary like Raun Larose, Palomo Spain, LRS, and Gypsy Sport. Style goes hand-in-hand with queer expression and politics, including these pieces in my work is a next step.
Find out more about the book and how you can support the cause here.

Ryker Allen
Ryan Cahill
Lens On: Ryker Allen

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